Watching the Watchman
Posted by lpearle on 6 August 2015
Many years ago, Harper Lee wrote a book she called Go Set A Watchman, submitted it to her publisher and hoped for the best. The best was that the publisher liked parts of the book and recommended she go back and write another book about those parts, the parts when Jean Louise looked back on her childhood. And thus was born To Kill A Mockingbird.
Years ago I heard Naomi Shihab Nye talk about her first publishing experience, when a poetry publisher told her that only seven lines of a much longer poem were “worthy”, thus forcing her to revise her poem. She talks the process of revision here in much the same way she did then:
See where this is going?
When the news came out that Ms. Lee had not destroyed the book but had kept it, and HarperCollins had the unedited, unpublishable first draft and was, in fact, publishing it, there were two reactions: one, why now? and two, what did Ms. Lee think? After all, that’s the hope of all readers when a favorite author dies, that there will be more coming because there were manuscripts hidden. Salinger must have written something amazing all those years he was in Vermont, right? It’s like Tupac recording from the grave. So the “why now” gets answered by “because now is when we found it” but the second question goes unanswered because no one can talk with the author unless they go through her lawyer, who swears that she’s happy about it all.
Maybe I was alone in this, but I never expected this to be a Great Read. If anything, it was a first, very rough look at the story and out of all the dross, the gold of Mockingbird arose. Many early readers and reviewers were shocked and dismayed to find that Atticus was a racist – it’s like finding out that Superman’s ability to leap tall buildings didn’t include the Empire State Buildings. This despite some scholars bringing out this aspect of Atticus for years already. Some refused to read it (my friend Chuck included). And now a bookstore is offering refunds for those who didn’t quite understand what they were getting when they purchased the book. It could be worse: it could have looked like Finnegan’s Wake!
Mockingbird was not a required read for me (I read it on my own, not for a class), so I don’t hold it in the same reverential light as (perhaps) those who studied the book do. My personal reading plans do not include reading Watchman. My professional collection development plans might include it, if (after conferring with the other librarians and our English teachers) they think it would add to our student’s understanding of the rewriting process and/or the themes in Mockingbird. That seems to be the reasonable thing to do.